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Two female soldiers will graduate from the Army’s grueling Ranger School on Friday, becoming the first women to ever complete one of the U.S. military’s premier courses to develop elite fighters and leaders, Army officials said Monday night.

The accomplishment marks a major breakthrough for women in the armed services at a time when each of the military branches is required to examine how to integrate women into jobs like infantryman in which they have never been allowed to serve. But even as the two new female graduates will be the first women allowed to wear the prestigious Ranger Tab on their uniforms, they still are not allowed to try out for the elite 75th Ranger Regiment, a Special Operations force that remains closed to women and has its own separate, exhausting requirements and training.

The women will receive the Ranger Tab alongside 94 male service members in a ceremony at Fort Benning, Ga., the home of Ranger School’s headquarters. They overcame fatigue, hunger and extreme stress to graduate, Army officials said.

“Congratulations to all of our new Rangers,” Army Secretary John McHugh said in a statement. “Each Ranger School graduate has shown the physical and mental toughness to successfully lead organizations at any level. This course has proven that every soldier, regardless of gender, can achieve his or her full potential. We owe soldiers the opportunity to serve successfully in any position where they are qualified and capable, and we continue to look for ways to select, train, and retain the best Soldiers to meet our nation’s needs.”

The graduation ceremony event is expected to draw not only family and friends, but hundreds of well-wishers and media from across the country. The female graduates are expected to speak to the media for the first time Thursday alongside instructors and other soldiers at Ranger School.

The women have not been identified by the Army, but both are officers in their 20s and graduates of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., Army officials said. The female graduates started Ranger School on April 20 alongside 380 men and 17 other female soldiers in the first class to ever include women. The female soldiers were allowed into Ranger School as part of the Army’s ongoing assessment of how to better integrate women.

Some skeptics, especially in the military, have questioned whether the women were given an easier path to graduation. But senior Army officials have insisted that is not the case, and opened Ranger School to media for a few days during each phase to underscore the point and allow Ranger instructors and others involved in their evaluation to speak.

The course includes three phases: The Darby Phase at Fort Benning, the Mountain Phase in northern Georgia’s Chattahoochee National Forest and the Florida Phase on and around Eglin Air Force Base on the Florida Panhandle. About 4,000 students attempt Ranger School each year, with some 1,600 — 40 percent — graduating. They include some service members who serve in the Ranger Regiment, but also many others who serve in jobs ranging from military police to helicopter pilot.

The course is 61 days for students who complete each phase on the first try. But only a minority do so. In the April class, for example, 37 of the 380 male students — about 10 percent — advanced directly through training, graduating earlier this summer. The remainder of the students — including all of the women — have struggled more than that, although 97 men overall graduated previously.

The nineteen female students were whittled to eight in April during an initial assessment that includes everything from chin-ups to push-ups to an exhausting 12-mile road march through Fort Benning’s hills while carrying a full combat load. All eight women then failed the first Darby Phase twice, and only three were allowed to try Ranger School again. They did so as a “Day 1 recycle,” an option that is offered on occasion to both men and women who excel in some aspects of Ranger School, but fall short in something specific that can be improved.

Two of the three women left then passed through the 20-day Mountain Phase on the first try in July, and completed the 17-day Florida Phase over the weekend. The third woman was held back in the Mountain Phase last month; her status was not immediately clear Monday night, but she could feasibly still graduate at a later date. The latest Mountain Phase began Aug. 9, Army officials said.

The two women graduating Friday began the Florida Phase alongside 163 men. About 57 percent of them did not pass it this time. It was not immediately clear how many of them will be allowed to try it again.

Retiring Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond T. Odierno told reporters at the Pentagon last week that the women who remained in Ranger School that if a soldier — male or female — can meet the standards the service has established for a job, they should be able to serve in it.

“The women in Ranger School are another example of, if they can meet the standard, they should be able to go, and they should be able to earn their Ranger tab,” Odierno said. “And I think that’s how we want to operate as we move forward.”

Odierno said no final decisions have been made whether to open the Army infantry or armor units to women, but he expected those to be made shortly.

“The feedback I’ve gotten with these women is how incredibly prepared they are,” he said of the remaining women in Ranger School. “The effort that they’ve put forward has been significant. They’ve impressed all that they’ve come in contact with. They are clearly motivated… and frankly, that’s what we want out of our soldiers.”

Odierno said he expected the Army to run another Ranger School course beginning in November to collect more information. A decision will be made afterward on whether to open the course permanently to women.

By Dan Lamothe - The Washington Post